WESTBROOK — The majority of Pat Gallant-Charette‘s 21-mile swim across the English Channel was spent fighting the urge to quit.
The water was colder than expected, and while some pockets reached 60 degrees, the relief was fleeting. Oil tankers making their way through the world’s busiest shipping lane churned deep, frigid water up to the surface, encasing Gallant-Charette in full-body numbness.
In the nearly 18 hours it took the 66-year-old to swim from England to France, other conditions played against her as well. Vomiting and minor dehydration were nothing compared to the searing pain from the jellyfish that wrapped its tentacles around her face.
From the boat, Gallant-Charette’s son Tom watched his mother thrash in the water as she ripped the animal from her face. She was over 14 hours in and had no choice but to keep going and ignore the burning pain coursing through her upper lip.
Thirteen days later on a quiet Friday morning at Riverbank Park, Gallant-Charette said she had “a thousand excuses to get out of the water.”
“I had a ton of negative thoughts while I swam the English Channel,” she said. “Eighty percent of my thoughts were about throwing in the towel. I said, I’m 66, they’ll understand.”
Being 66, though, is part of what kept the Westbrook resident and native going. On June 17 she became the oldest person to swim the English Channel.
Setting world records, of which she has five, isn’t what Gallant-Charette set out to do when she took up swimming. Most swimmers train their whole lives to find the success she has, but Gallant-Charette didn’t start her swimming career until she was 48.
“I thought at 50 it was all downhill, but for me it wasn’t,” she said.
The swim that sparked Gallant-Charette’s passion for the sport was the annual Peaks to Portland swim, which her son entered at age 16. Tom was swimming in honor of Gallant-Charette’s late brother Robbie, a two-time winner of the race, who died of a heart attack at 34 years old.
Touched by her son’s gesture, but doubtful of her own ability, Gallant-Charette said she wished she could do the swim as well. Her teenage son remarked that she could, if she tried.
The day of the event, Gallant-Charette was full of uncertainty.
“I looked at all these young slender athletes and I’m there gray-haired, overweight and said, ‘Pat, what the heck are you doing?'” she said.
Gallant-Charette was doing the swim for Robbie, though, as well as for her other brother Johnny, who died at age 17 in an accident. She said she still thinks of them with every swim.
Her first Peaks to Portland experience was nerve-racking due to her fear of open water. As she made the swim across Casco Bay, though, she wasn’t thinking of what was below her. Seeing the nature around her made her realize that “the beauty is worth the risk of the unknown.”
That beauty has now led Gallant-Charette all over the world for swims. In May, only a month before swimming the English Channel, she swam the Molokai Channel in Hawaii.
Last year she completed a solo swim through the North Channel in Ireland, which is considered one of the toughest swims in the world. The freezing, jellyfish-infested water left Gallant-Charette with “stings on every inch of my body.”
Conditions like that make a swim seem near impossible, but Gallant-Charette said the sport is much more of a mental test than a physical one.
“You just kind of deal with it,” she said. “You have to be strong mentally to go through that.”
Swimming the English Channel last month tested her mental strength. At one point Gallant-Charette even thought she was hallucinating. As her arm came up in a stroke, the swimmer saw a large dorsal fin over her shoulder.
While most people would panic in fear of a shark, Gallant-Charette credited delusion with what she was seeing. Hours later, though, her son confirmed the fin sighting, which actually belonged to an ocean sunfish.
Persevering through the 17-hour, 55-minute swim was also a result of having failed it in the past. Last year Gallant-Charette had to stop her English Channel swim after 10 hours due to excessive vomiting. In the past she’s also been bested by strong currents.
“Now I’m 66 and this is my strongest year of swimming, which I don’t understand,” she said. “Usually as people get older they slow down, but I’m not.”
Gallant-Charette said she knows her age has “raised some eyebrows,” but she doesn’t care. She said she wants to show the world that swimming is a lifelong sport.
Swimming, she said, doesn’t have to be hyper-competitive to be taken seriously. She said she goes at her own pace and focuses more on the distance than the time.
“At the age of 66 I’m not going to be Michael Phelps so I might as well slow down and enjoy it,” she said, referring to the swimmer who is the most decorated Olympian with 28 medals.
While swimming isn’t about being competitive, Gallant-Charette said she does still feel disappointment when she has to quit a swim midway through. The letdowns have taught her the importance of continuing to fight.
“It shows that no matter what happens in life with disappointment and heartache, it’s OK to feel that hurt, but also to move on,” she said.
Having lost two brothers so early in their lives is a major factor behind Gallant-Charette’s resilient mindset. After all, Robbie and Johnny were the ones to inspire her initial Peaks to Portland swim.
Gallant-Charette said she’s so thankful her son encouraged her to do that first swim. Without his push, she may not be where she is today.
“In life we all have our dreams and as we get older sometimes we think we can’t go after our dreams, but I say go for it because you never know unless you try,” she said.
As she nears 70, Gallant-Charette is nowhere near done dreaming. She has been working on completing the Ocean’s Seven Challenge, which requires completing seven open-water long-distance swims in parts of the world.
Gallant-Charette has one swim left to complete the challenge. In 2019 she’ll be swimming Cook’s Strait between New Zealand and Australia.
“A lot of people think that because I’ve retired from my nursing career I’ll retire from my swimming career, but I’m like, watch out world,” she said. “I’m still going after the big swims.”